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Surprise Valley Community Church
405 Bonner Street

Surprise Valley Community Church in Cedarville (click to enlarge)

The roots of Surprise Valley's historic Community Church can be traced back as early as the fall of 1866 when Brother E.H. Orne, a "licensed Exhorter" arrived and started a Sunday School and held weekly prayer meetings. Participants met in homes until a school house was built.

In the summer of 1867, the circuit was represented at the Nevada Conference Meeting of the Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1877, a parsonage was built at a cost of $400.

According to an article in the Reno Gazette, dated March 18, 1880, interest in building a church in Cedarville was growing. Later in November, the paper reported many buildings were being constructed in the town, including an Odd Fellows Hall and a Methodist Episcopal Church.

In January 1881, the paper contained a detailed description of the new church:
"The new church at Cedarville is 52 by 25 feet, with an audience room of 40 by 24 feet. In front is the prayer room, opening into the main room by sliding windows. There's a side tower for the vestibule and a bell.

"A good bell of 500 pounds weight, hangs in the belfry. The windows of the church are to be covered with paper to give them the appearance of stained glass. The ceiling is blue.

"The building cost about $3000. It was opened for the first time for divine services on Sunday, January 9 (1881)

"Churches are very scarce up North with the nearest church to Cedarville being at Susanville, 120 miles away. The Cedarville Church is handsome, both inside and out."

The Community Church was the first church building in Modoc County. It has hosted a very long list of pastors, many of whom stayed less than a year. The first was the Reverend W.J. White who came in January 1872. The Rev. John Pendleton, who married Emma Bonner) was pastor when the building was dedicated.

Virgil Vineyard was the last minister to serve under the church's original denomination before it became a Congregational Church in November 1939. Although the name changed, members say its congregation remained the same, "witnessing for Christ in the community without a break since 1866."

With postwar prosperity, members began making many changes to the property, including removing fences and many aging poplar trees, adding concrete sidewalks, and planting a lawn and evergreen trees and shrubs.

While plans to lower the ceiling in the sanctuary had been discussed for years, it took a cold morning in 1953 to move things along. Rev. Ralph Conard arrived early to build a fire in the stove, hoping to diminish the fall chill before his parishioners arrived for the Sunday service. The subsequent fire canceled those plans and services were held in the Community Hall until February 14, 1954 when the sanctuary (complete with a new, lower ceiling) was rededicated.

Fire threatened the building at other times as well. An untended candle scorched paneling in the late 1950s, and one Sunday, members Gail Hicks and Coe Leavengood were seen quietly but hurriedly leaving the sanctuary during a service. They returned later, "disheveled in appearance but smiling broadly." Later, they related how smoke had "drifted down past the windows" near their seats. They went to investigate and found a fire in the church's flue. That episode spelled the end of using wood burning stoves in the church. A new furnace was installed to heat both the sanctuary and hall in 1959.

In 1980, the most recent fire resulted in a new entryway being added onto the Community Hall entrance on Center Street.

Members look back on one particularly memorable chapter in the church's history. One minister, backed by a prominent local businessman, spearheaded an anti-saloon campaign, hoping to see all of Modoc County become "dry". When the votes were counted and the prohibitionists had prevailed, the two men were not very popular with some local residents. They received threats that the church would be burned in retaliation. So, for a while, the minister barricaded himself inside the church building, protecting it with his constant presence

The church's Community Hall, built on in 1921, also has a long and colorful history. At various times it has served as the high school's basketball court, a movie theater for high school students in the 1920s, and was the town's public library for awhile. Over the years it has hosted Grange, Rotary and 4-H meetings, local Boy Scout troops, and many other community organizations.

In 1947, the tower chimes were donated in memory of the young men of Surprise Valley who lost their lives in WWII. The sanctuary's altar was made by C.E. "Kelly" Borden (under the direction of Frank Wheeler) in 1947, and a matching pulpit was given in memory of Phoebe Fitzgerald Robinson in 1950. The hanging cross was donated in 1968 by the family of Alice Hill. The lovely stained glass window in the vestibule was given in memory of James and Martha Wylie by their family.

Other memorial gifts have included hymn books, collection plates, new carpeting, and the illuminated sign that hangs near the outdoor entryway.

During the Centennial Service on January 25, 1981, a handcrafted communion chalice and a bread tray made by David Mackey of Alturas were presented on behalf of the Federated Church of Alturas. Lige Langston sang a solo, and photos, albums and other memorabilia and memories spanning the past century were shared at a community potluck following the service.

That service was presided over by the Rev. Jim Russ. The current minister is the Rev. Dr. Ben Zandstra, who assumed duties at the church in 1986.

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Page modified: 19 Feb 2024 10:17:36 -0800

Surprise Valley Chamber of Commerce
PO Box 518, Cedarville, California 96104

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